On Quirky’s Site, Anyone Can Invent a Hit Consumer Product

6/21/11Follow @arleneweintraub

[Updated 6/21/09 3:30 p.m. See below.] On June 15, Jake Zien stood outside the Bed Bath & Beyond store on 6th Avenue in New York gazing at a giant poster of himself in a sprawling window display. The display features his product, Pivot Power, a flexible power strip that he invented with the help of Quirky—a New York-based company that solicits product ideas from everyday people via its website, and then patents, produces, and markets the finished goods. “This is crazy, it’s amazing,” Zien said, seeing the display for the first time. “It’s a thrill to see my product sold nationally.”

Quirky has only been around for two years, but its out-of-the-box approach to product development is generating buzz around the world. At the company’s bustling headquarters in early June, a camera crew from the Sundance Channel was wrapping up a reality series on Quirky that will air in August. Quirky’s marketing folks had just returned from an appearance on the Home Shopping Network, where they spotlighted products ranging from a clip-on LED desk lamp to a shower-organizing system—all designed by off-the-street inventors and submitted on Quirky.com. John Jacobsen, Quirky’s head of engineering, calls the startup a social product-development company. “The basic concept,” he says, “is we are trying to make invention accessible.”

Quirky.com centers around the 67,000 would-be inventors and consumers who have registered on the site. Anyone with an idea can go there and answer two simple questions: “What problem are you trying to solve?” and “How do you intend to solve it?” Inventors can also submit ideas for Quirky-posed challenges, like “help invent a barbecue product” or “help invent a suction product.” Then the other members of the community vote on which ideas they like the best.

Every week, the Quirky staff evaluates two of the ideas that have received the most votes and decides whether to produce them. The company has made 25 products and is in the process of manufacturing 15 more. And while the products are branded and patented by Quirky, the deal the company has with the community is that everyone who contributes gets some sort of royalty—from the original inventor, to the people who suggest colors for the product, to the shoppers who pre-order products. “If you put your credit card down” before a product is available, Jacobsen says, “you get a small royalty for being an early adopter.” [Paragraph updated to clarify product availability.]

All together, Quirky gives 30 percent of sales back to the community as royalties, Jacobsen says, with about 12 percent of the total for each product going to the original inventor. Quirky celebrates successful inventors, featuring their names and faces not only on the website, but also on the product packaging.

And as Zien is demonstrating, it’s possible to become quite wealthy by inventing a Quirky product. Jacobsen says Zien earned $28,000 in royalties … Next Page »

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